Part One: Exile
A/N 1: Celestial Wars is a new novel series by Karen Buckeridge, which I've had the privilege of helping her to develop. It explores the idea of gods as people in their own right. Each pantheon exists in its own realm, and family lines cross from realm to realm.
A/N 2: Janesha is an original character for the Celestial Wars series, but other names are either canon or actually appear in the books.
A/N 3: This fic beta-read by the author of Celestial Wars.
A/N 4: This fic is set toward the middle of the series, well after the first novel. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum. No prior knowledge of the series is needed to understand what's going on.
A/N 5: The first three chapters of Ties that Bind, the first novel in the Celestial Wars series, can be found on Fictionpress under my username. The novel itself can be found on Amazon and Smashwords.
This story is a crossover set mainly in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use both settings.
I will follow canon for the Wormverse as closely as I can. Some aspects of Worm will be altered due to the interaction with Celestial Wars. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
I welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion.
"—and so I hoisted him in the air with my one hand around his throat," boasted Thor. "With my other, I drew my sword and held it up so he knew what was coming." He paused to ensure that his audience—many of them youths of Asgard, but some were from other realms, coming from as far away as Yaru and Mystal—were giving his story the rapt attention that it deserved. Nearly all of them were, but one girl, a dark-skinned stripling of fifteen or sixteen in dull black, was squinting as though something about the tale gave her indigestion. He reassured himself that she was probably feeling queasy from the richness of his telling. Girls of that age probably couldn't stomach a good tale of blood and guts. Smoothing down his voluminous red beard, he continued.
"Then, with a cry of, 'This is what happens to those who disrespect the house of Odin!', I threw him into the air as easily as you might toss a scrap of meat to a dog. Then I clove him in twain with my sword, twice over. Once from head to crotch, and once through the waist. When he struck the ground in four places, his men lost all heart and fled."
Amid the gasps of wonder and awe, he heard a distinct snort from the squinting girl. Now she had him fixed with the same sort of cynical eye that Sif used on him when his excuses for staying out too late began to wear thin. He was starting to feel irritated, so he stepped forward and gave her the same glare back. "What's the matter, girl?" he asked. "The tale not to your liking?"
"The story's fine, Lord Thor," she said casually. "The trouble is, I first heard it years ago—at my great-grandmother's knee. From the way she told it, she was the one who sliced and diced the guy, and made his men leave a trail of shit all the way back to the borders of the realm." She nodded toward Thor. "And don't you normally prefer a hammer to a sword, anyway?"
Thor puffed out his chest, his pride stung. "I am a warrior, girl!" he thundered. Leaning into his powerbase just a little, he caused true thunder to roll and rattle around the rafters of the longhouse. "I can use a sword if I so wish, and I have done so many times. Stand up, girl. Let me see you. Who are you, to call me a liar under my own roof?"
Slowly, the girl stood up, revealing that she was wearing black leather from neck to toe. A cape of the same colour was fastened around her neck with a gold clasp, raising a certain memory in Thor's mind. Before this could bear fruit, the girl's peers edged away from her slightly to give her a clear space, distracting him. He imagined this was to get out of the splash range of any lightning bolts he might throw at her. Not that he would. These were guests under his roof, and he would no sooner attack them than he would renounce his own godhood.
"I wasn't calling you a liar, Lord Thor," she said quietly but firmly. "I was merely pointing out that I have heard that exact tale before, word for word, but with my great-grandmother holding the sword. I am Janesha of Mystal, daughter of Tawhirimatea, granddaughter of Rabbe …" She took a deep breath. "… great-granddaughter of Armina."
The indrawn gasps made it sound as if a gentle wind had swept across the audience. No matter where they were from, almost everyone knew the fearsome reputation of Armina, Mystal's goddess of War. Outside her home realm, she was a masterful strategist who could read a battlefield like Bragi could read a scroll. Within the borders of Mystal, she literally could not lose a battle. It was her powerbase and her thrall; challenge her to any kind of battle at all, and she instantly knew how to win it. On the downside, she could not turn away from such a challenge or throw a match, no matter what she felt about her opponent.
And one more thing was known about her. Armina did not lie about her victories. She didn't need to. The record spoke for itself.
Which meant that Janesha was indeed accusing Thor of being either untruthful or forgetful. It was, in fact, both. Once, in his cups, he had repeated the tale which he'd heard before, he wasn't sure where. It made for a fine alehouse story, and his drinking comrades had asked him to repeat it so many times that he'd truly begun to think it was his own deed. Of course, now he knew whose deed it was, he wouldn't be telling it any more.
On the other hand, Armina wasn't here to take him to task, but this skinny little chit seemed to think that she was permitted to. Thor scowled heavily, and thunder boomed in the rafters once more. "Well, then, Janesha of Mystal, daughter of Tawhirimatea, granddaughter of Rabbe, great-granddaughter of Armina, what have your elders taught you about speaking out of turn?"
There was fear in her now, he could tell. To her credit, she refused to let it show. "I was taught to always own my words and deeds," she replied steadily. "But tell me, Lord Thor. How was I speaking out of turn, when you asked me to speak up first? Would you have preferred that I lie?"
Yes! But Thor did not speak the word. That would be more in keeping with Loki's thoughts and deeds. In fact, he wouldn't put it past his father's blood brother to have arranged this in some subtle way. Humiliating Thor like this before such young, impressionable minds would be a great prank indeed. He looked around the longhouse until he spotted Loki sitting at a table a little way away. Smirking slightly, the god of Mischief raised his mug of mead to Thor, then took a drink.
Unfortunately, Loki had not spoken the words or raised the topic, so Thor couldn't prove he was behind it. But he could deal with the little troublemaker before him. Removing the Mischief god's catspaw from the board would be satisfying in its own right, and would require Loki to find another little fool to corrupt to his cause.
"Enough with your words," he snapped. "You have disrespected me and my house. Were you a man, I would strike you down where you stand. But you are a child. Bow before me and offer your sincere apology in the name of the realm of Mystal, and I will allow your slight to pass."
"Yeah, as if."
The words barely had time to pass her lips before the gasps of those around her almost drowned out the buzz of conversation at the nearby tables. He stared at her. "What?" His exclamation came out like a crack of thunder.
She had her hands clenched at her sides, probably to conceal their shaking. But she did not flee and she did not quail. "I didn't stutter, Lord Thor," she said as firmly as she was able. Then, as if recalling a long-ago lesson, her spine straightened. "And I was taught to stand my ground and apologise for nothing. Do what you will. Because Mystallians don't bend and we sure as shit don't break."
Well, she's definitely one of Avis' insane lot, Thor mused. Mystallians were famous—or infamous—throughout the realms for their stiff-necked pride. The only time in their tumultuous history that they had ever capitulated to the will of another realm was when Avis, their co-leader and god of Life had gotten Clarise, the daughter of the ruler of Chaos, with child. From all accounts, the liaison had taken place on a diplomatic mission and had been consensual on both sides. But Belial hadn't cared. With the entire fighting force of Chaos behind him, he had advanced on Mystal with a single demand: Avis must marry Clarise.
There was no doubt in Thor's mind that had Mystal been stronger or Chaos weaker, the answer would've been much different. However, it wasn't, and the couple were soon wed. It hadn't gone well. Less than a year later, Avis had been exiled from his own realm and gone on a three-year rampage across the Known Realms, about two steps ahead of a vengeful force of Hellion Highborn lords, apparently to do with his mistreatment of his wife. Thor didn't have all the details of how Avis had sorted that little problem out, but he'd come traipsing back through Asgard two years after that, with not only Clarise but also their two young daughters in tow. And Thor had always thought that Chance was Mystal's god of Luck, not Avis.
By now, all the other youngsters were hissing at Janesha to shut up, to apologise, to do anything to avert the wrath of Thor. She ignored them, staring back at him. Almost daring him to do his worst. Of course, he couldn't do that. The stupid little bitch wasn't even established yet. A hit that would merely incapacitate her godly relatives until they healed would kill her stone dead, with no takebacks. And there was no way in all the realms he wanted that sort of wergild hanging over his head, or the reputation of killing a teenage girl who called him out for stealing another's glory.
"Well, bend and break this!" he bellowed, and pointed to the doors. "You are henceforth banished from my hearth, my home and my realm! Leave now and never return, until Ragnarok itself befalls Asgard! Thor commands it!" Thunder rolled in the echo of his voice, both within and without the longhouse.
That, and only that, caused her gaze to narrow and started the tears welling in her eyes as she stepped from between the other youngsters and started the trek toward the way out of the longhouse. Her face was set and pale, her lips pressed tightly together. It was a pity, Thor mused absently, that she hadn't thought to close her mouth like that earlier, when it counted. The tears hadn't fallen from her eyes by the time she passed him, nor did she look to the left nor to the right as she made her way toward the exit.
To be banned forever from a realm was a harsh penalty, especially for such a youthful celestial. She would grow, and she would learn what she'd done wrong, but until he decided to rescind his word, she would never be allowed back into Asgard. Still, Thor considered his actions justified. She had to learn that there were things that youngsters just didn't do, and that included calling their elders liars. In some realms, that would have definitely gotten her killed.
As she reached the doors, the guards standing by opened them, allowing a gust of freezing air, dancing with snowflakes, to swirl in. Stepping forth, she descended the stairs on the outside of the longhouse, vanishing from his view. A second figure darted between the doors just before the guards closed them with a hollow boom, but Thor didn't bother calling out. He knew who it was, and that it would be a waste of words.
As the conversations slowly started up again, Thor turned to the youngsters and forced himself to smile jovially. "Well, then," he boomed. "Who'd like to hear another story?"
This time, he decided, he'd make sure to tell of the deeds he had performed.
Stomping down the steps with indignation stoking her growing anger, Janesha restrained herself from bursting back into the hall and turning Thor's mind into that of a newborn, with all the attendant lack of body control. If she thought she was in trouble now, doing that would definitely get her grounded for the next eon or two. But that didn't stop it from being sorely tempting. It was best to leave now, before she acted on her impulses. She'd never liked Asgard, anyway. It was always too cold for her liking, and the gods too boastful and arrogant. Especially Thor, that overgrown fire-bearded, thunder-stealing lying sack of—!
"For a shifter, you're not very good at controlling your expressions," observed a calm voice from behind her. She turned fast, even though she'd recognised the voice immediately.
"Aunt Yasadan," she greeted the older woman. This was Thor's sister, though she was wearing the same Mystallian leathers as Janesha herself. Red-haired and muscular like her brother, though not as obviously bulky, Yasadan was married to Janesha's great-great-uncle Amaro. Amaro, Avis' dour twin brother, was Mystal's other co-ruler and its god of Death. "He's pissed, isn't he?" As the cold began to get to her, she reconfigured her leathers to be more insulating. The ruff of black fur at the collar was a nice touch, she thought.
"I'm afraid so," Yasadan said regretfully.
"Good. So am I."
"I can tell. Though I can talk to him, if you wish …?"
"Nope." Janesha shook her head violently, causing her shoulder-length black hair to sway back and forth. Spilling from her eyes at last, the tears burned hot tracks down her frozen cheeks. The warmth didn't last for long, and she could actually feel the salty water freezing in its turn. With a thought, she evaporated them because she wanted to concentrate on the conversation. "He stole that story and we both know it. I meant every word I said."
"But he wasn't hurting anyone, and there was no need to make a fool of him in public," Yasadan pointed out gently.
"So you're on his side now," Janesha snapped, her temper getting the better of her.
Yasadan raised a warning eyebrow. "Do you honestly think your grandmother's reputation so fragile that she needs you to leap to her defense?"
"That's not the point." Fully aware that she'd overreacted to her aunt's words, Janesha waved her hand in a 'whatever' gesture. "Anyway, let him boot me out. I'm earning every realm-damned word of it."
"As is your right," Yasadan acknowledged. "Do you want to blood-link back home to your parents, or should I link you through to Amaro?" Concealed within her seemingly innocuous inquiry was an acknowledgement that Janesha almost certainly would not want to face her parents immediately.
Blood-links were a means for celestials related by blood to communicate and travel to one another over great distances. Having married Amaro and shared in his essence, Yasadan could blood-link with anyone of the Mystallian bloodline, just as Amaro had access to Yasadan's extended family.
As such, Yasadan's question was a subtle suggestion that Janesha would like to spend some time with her uncle before breaking the news to her parents that she'd managed to get herself banned from a realm. Amaro, after all, resided in (and ruled from) Crohen, Mystal's Death City, which was all the way across the realm from Pandess, the city of Life (where Janesha and her family lived). If Yasadan requested it, Amaro would be likely to assent, and Janesha knew he would not judge her by her actions. Death held no favourites, after all.
It wasn't a bad call. As Mystal's goddess of Serenity, Yasadan was good at making little suggestions like that. However, Janesha had other ideas. "Neither," she said after a moment's thought. "I'll ride. It'll take my mind off things. Let me get my head on straight, so I'm not still all angry when I talk to them about it."
"That's wise," Yasadan said with a smile. "Are you sure you want to ride all the way? It is at least a nine-month ride back to Mystal, after all." Mystallions were fast; the only things faster were certain denizens of Chaos. But realms were huge, and even the fastest riding animals in all the realms still took time to get anywhere.
Janesha shrugged. "Once I've calmed down, I'll just blood-link back home and be done with it." Not that she thought she'd be doing that at all quickly. Mystallian children had a certain bloody-mindedness inculcated in them almost from birth; it was very much a 'do or die' attitude that had stood Mystal well in the past. "I'm thinking a few weeks away from liars and idiots is just what I need right now."
"And food? How are you going to carry a few weeks' worth?" Yasadan wasn't trying to discourage her from going, Janesha was certain. She was just asking to make sure Janesha had a plan of action.
Glancing down at the ground, Janesha spied a rock as big as her fist. Stooping, she took it up and held it in her hand. Concentrating on it, she willed the ice-cold stone to reconfigure into her favourite fruit. Moments later, she held a bright red apple. Biting into it, she let the sweet juice run down her throat as she chewed and swallowed. "I think I've got it handled," she observed. While the greater measure of her celestial ability ran to mind powers, she was also able to change the shape and consistency of things—including herself—to a certain degree, something she'd inherited from her father. And while she couldn't affect the weather, she'd always been able to tell what it was going to be like at any one time, so she'd know when to build a shelter and when to keep riding.
"Very true," agreed Yasadan. Taking her great-grandniece in her arms, the ex-Asgardian gave her a warm hug. "Take care of yourself, little one, and don't worry about Thor. I'll speak to him. By the time you're back home, I'll have all this sorted out."
Privately, Janesha doubted that, but she didn't voice her reservations. Thor was known to be bull-headed to a fault and he was in his home realm, which meant his thrall was in play. Yasadan, on the other hand, merely had her innate ability to calm ruffled feathers, but not her full-fledged power base to call upon. So unless Uncle Avis himself were to visit Odin (something that hadn't happened since long before she was born) and prevail upon his one-time friend to speak to Thor on Janesha's behalf, she didn't see that changing any time in the next eon or so.
"Thanks," she said out loud. "I appreciate it." Giving her great-great-aunt one last smile, she headed around the longhouse to where the two mystallions were stabled in makeshift lodgings.
Mystallions were a breed of winged horse native to Mystal. Despite the name, there were both male and female mystallions. Janesha had once spent some time trying to figure out the link between Mystallians and mystallions. Whenever a member of Mystal's nobility was nearing adulthood, a mystallion would be born, achieving riding age just when the Mystallian was ready to start learning. In addition, when a god from another realm married into the pantheon, they also found themselves with a mystallion in short order. Once bonded, rider and horse were able to pick up on each others' feelings to a certain degree, though nobody quite seemed to know how. If anyone held the key to this mystery, she'd figured, Culkin would. But when she asked Mystal's god of Knowledge about it, he'd smiled and told a story about a mortal hero who'd been granted the use of a mystallion for a short time. It was an hour later before she realised he'd given her no answer at all.
Entering the hastily-constructed building, she had to laugh out loud. The Asgardians had built the stables as they built everything else, heavy on the stone and wood and strong enough to keep out predators or attacking armies. But the purpose of stables was to let mystallions know where they were supposed to be, rather than keep them in or even protect them.
As with all denizens of the celestial realms, the winged horses were far stronger and more durable than their mortal counterparts, and would contemptuously kick to pieces any real attempt to pen them in with mere wood and stone. Some Asgardian or other, failing to understand this, had hung heavy wooden gates across the stall entrances. One gate had been smashed off its hinges and was now embedded in the stone wall opposite, with a single perfect hoof-print in the centre of the gate to explain how it got there. The other had apparently been torn from its mountings by something that left a bite-mark deeply impressed in the iron-hard wood, then shaken to pieces; there were bits of wood everywhere. It didn't surprise Janesha at all that the gouges in the wood matched a horse's teeth exactly.
"Wow, we just can't leave you alone for a moment, can we?" she asked, the sight of the wrecked gates having improved her mood somewhat. Both mystallions looked innocently back at her from their stalls though her own mount, the fiery-tempered Cloudstrike, seemed to be discreetly spitting splinters on to the floor of the stable. The mare's ears pricked forward and she nickered eagerly, perhaps picking up on her rider's desire to be out of this place.
Her good mood returning in full, Janesha took Cloudstrike's bridle from its peg and held it out invitingly. "Want to go for a ride, girl? Huh?"
Cloudstrike definitely knew the word 'ride'. She let out a trumpeting whinny that would've still been deafening if Janesha had been outside and fifty metres upwind. As it was, Janesha had to reconfigure her ears to get over the ringing in them after the echoes died away. She put her hands over her ears and gave her mount a dirty look. Cloudstrike nickered again, looking amused, and nosed at the bridle.
"Yeah, yeah, so funny," Janesha muttered, and held out the apple to her equine friend. As Cloudstrike crunched on the treat, she slid the bridle on to the mystallion's head. Then she saddled up her mystallion and led her from the stables. Cloudstrike had a palomino's colouring, with wingfeathers that showed blue below and a cloudy grey above. In bright sunlight, her golden coat could be seen to positively glow.
There was none of that here, of course. During the winter in Asgard, Sól could be scarcely roused from her bed before late morning, and some days she refused to get up at all. Even in the summer, the light she shed was at best pale and watery. And this definitely wasn't summer.
Poising herself, Janesha vaulted lightly into the saddle, very carefully not looking over to see if her great-great-aunt was impressed. Among her Mystallian peers, it was fine to show off, but you weren't supposed to acknowledge that you were showing off. And if you happened to screw up while showing off, nobody let you forget it. This was why she'd practised the move assiduously before ever trying it in public.
Safely in the saddle, she waved to Yasadan then looked up at the lowering sky. She'd flown at night before, but never in such chilly conditions. More snow was on the way, she judged. If she waited much longer, it would be too cold for even the hardy Cloudstrike to fly properly. But it was either that or admit defeat and blood-link back to Mystal in a single step.
Screw that. Thor can kiss my ass. Shaking out her reins, she dug her boot-heels into Cloudstrike's ribs. "Hyah! Let's go!"
The mystallion responded eagerly, unfurling her great wings and bringing them down in a thunderclap of wind. That one wingbeat served to launch them skyward in a flurry of snowflakes. When next Janesha looked down, Yasadan was a dwindling dot, far below. Upward they spiralled, Janesha wanting to get above the clouds. It would be colder up there, but there would be less in the way of snow to obscure their vision.
Before they entered the cloud layer itself, Janesha formed a hood and scarf from the Mystallian leathers, bringing it close around her head with snow-goggles across her eyes. Thus attired, she had no exposed skin for when they swept into the freezing clouds. Still, the chill struck at her with a vengeance, forcing her to fortify her body against the icy cold. Beneath her, Cloudstrike's wingbeats never faltered, driving them ever upward.
By the time they burst into the upper air, Janesha found there was a thin layer of ice crystals coating her arms and legs, with more glinting in Cloudstrike's coat. Tiny stalactites formed and then broke away from the mystallion's wingfeathers, while her mount's exhalations formed huge clouds of vapour that flowed back around them like tiny versions of the clouds below them.
If she'd thought it was cold at ground level, that was nothing compared to the chill at this altitude. Mentally, she calculated the time it would take to fly all the way across Asgard toward Mystal, and conceded that neither she nor Cloudstrike would be able to make it in one flight. Too many more hours of this, and they would freeze to death in mid-air, or simply freeze solid altogether. Yet her pride demanded that she not let Thor win, driving her back to Mystal with her metaphorical tail between her legs.
Of course. Why she hadn't thought of this before, she didn't know … well, yes, she did. There was another way out of the conundrum, but it involved doing something she'd never thought of doing before. Thor's longhouse was all the way across Asgard from Mystal for a good reason: monsters from the Unknown Realms invaded Asgard on a semi-regular basis, and Thor always liked a good fight. Asgard's border with the unmapped region was barely ten minutes away by air. Once across said border, they'd be out of the biting cold, and she'd be able to plot a better course then. Of course, this did mean that they'd actually have to cross the border and leave the Known Realms, at least for a little while.
The big problem with entering the Unknown Realms was the fact that no pantheons held sway there. There was also danger to be found there, of course. For an unestablished celestial, anywhere and everywhere held the risk of injury or even death. But it was no more dangerous than many of the settled Realms, and less so than some (in some Realms, the ruling pantheon was the danger). However, if a traveller in the Unknown Realms encountered trouble, there was nobody around to help. Once a pantheon carved out a realm and established their names, they automatically became part of the Known Realms. Absent that, an unwary traveller could run into anything out there.
Still, the slight chance of trouble was better than the very real peril of freezing to death. Gently, she tugged on one of the reins, bringing Cloudstrike around in a long, swooping turn. "Ten minutes, girl," she said, leaning forward in the saddle. "And then we're warm again."
Cloudstrike's expressive snort was matched by an increase in the frequency of her wingbeats; more ice crystals exploded into their wake. The mystallion accelerated toward the promised warmth, provoking a whoop of exhilaration from her teenage rider.
Crossing from one Realm into another was not a common experience. If celestials wanted to travel, they usually blood-linked to a relative in the realm they were bound for. It made for fast, efficient travel, without all that boring going from one place to another. For this trip, just as an example, Aunt Yasadan had blood-linked to Thor, and brought Janesha along for the trip. Their mystallions had been included in the deal, because no son or daughter of Mystal left their steeds behind if there was the slightest chance they'd need them.
The border with the Unknown Realms, therefore, looked strange to Janesha as she and Cloudstrike approached it. Instead of the bitterly-cold night sky, it seemed to reflect sunset colours, spread across the horizon before them. Janesha hung on as the boundary leaped toward them, not knowing what sort of a jolt was in store. Would they fall from the sky, or just plain hit a wall?
As it turned out, neither outcome was what happened. One instant they were arrowing through sub-freezing temperatures and the next they were soaring over rolling, tree-clad hills. The temperature change was almost shocking in its suddenness, and Janesha quickly found that her insulated leathers were now far too warm for the new climate. She dispelled the hood and goggles, bringing the leathers back to their normal thickness and warmth. Under her, Cloudstrike whinnied loudly in triumph as the last of the ice crystals on her wings cracked and fell away. Now she was spraying tiny droplets of water with every wing-beat, as moisture condensed on her super-cooled wingfeathers, only to be flicked off again.
"We did it!" whooped Janesha, waving her fist in the air. As an afterthought, she turned the gesture into a middle finger directed at Asgard behind her. "And screw you too, Thor!"
Now came the moment of truth; to turn left or right before skirting the border of Asgard on their way back to Mystal? It really didn't make a difference, she decided. Either way, she'd likely still be following the border when she finally got sick of travelling on her own and decided to blood-link straight home.
And that was when she had the Idea. As with all capital-I Ideas, it initially seemed like a good one, only revealing a certain level of poor judgement after the fact. If she was going to be spending all this time in the Unknown Realms, she figured, why not explore a bit?
"How about it, Cloudstrike?" she asked out loud. For the moment they were just gliding, enjoying the feeling of the warm wind across their faces, so she could speak to her mount without shouting. "Up for a little ride into uncharted territory? See what's really out there? Have an adventure or two before we go home?"
Cloudstrike tossed her head and whinnied in agreement. It seemed she was just as interested in the idea as Janesha. Then again, it wasn't altogether surprising. Mystallions were very close in temperament to their riders, so if Janesha thought it was a good idea to venture forth into the unknown, Cloudstrike was almost guaranteed to agree.
Three Weeks Later
"So what do you say, Cloudstrike?" Janesha asked as she stood up from the comfortable mattress she'd created from a fallen tree. "Time to head home yet, or should we make it four weeks?" It had been an interesting and educational time for her. She'd never spent this much time alone before, and had taken the opportunity to think over the clash with Thor in some detail. With some thought on the matter, she figured she knew where she'd gone wrong, and how she should have approached the subject. Not making her derision plain would've been a good start.
Nor had she spent all the time inside her own head. She and Cloudstrike had dropped into the mortal realm from time to time, just to see what the stars and galaxies looked like when gods weren't making reality play tricks for their own amusement. They'd cruised past magnificent ringed planets and watched gigantic stars explode in slow motion. Janesha had spent a whole hour watching a purple slug-like thing wriggle painfully out of a methane ocean.
The sheer relentless drive of its tiny mind reminded her a little of the Mystallian way of life, and she'd taken the time to mark it (and its descendants) with the Mystallian sigil that adorned the back of her cape, a mystallion rearing with widespread wings. The fact that Mystallians would likely never visit that particular planet ever again hadn't even bothered her.
Pausing in her methodical demolishing of a nearby bush, Cloudstrike snorted and tossed her head. It seemed to Janesha that the mystallion was a little homesick, just as she herself was, but both were also reluctant to bring the endless vacation to an end. Also, Janesha wasn't overly looking forward to the chewing out she was going to get from her father over being banned from a nominally-friendly realm.
"So maybe another day or two then?" Janesha paused to give herself a stimulation wave; her shapeshifting went through her entire body, including her leathers, to reset everything back to scratch. Her hair went from bed-head to perfectly brushed, her eyes were clear, teeth were clean, and her leathers were smooth and polished. Shifter powers were so useful.
As she laid her hand on Cloudstrike to give her mount the same treatment, the mystallion nickered in agreement. Janesha reformed the lead-rope and peg that had tethered Cloudstrike to the ground overnight back into the bridle. Her pillow and blankets reconfigured into Cloudstrike's saddle at a touch, and soon they were ready to travel on.
The whole thing about the Unknown Realms was that they had no boundaries. In the mortal plane, the average realm consisted of many billions of galaxies, which mystallions could traverse in a matter of hours. Up on the celestial plane, she travelled across various types of terrain; wooded hills, swamps, mountains, deserts and so forth. These didn't matter all that much. If a celest decided to claim a section for a Realm and stayed long enough to become attuned to it, it would then begin to reshape itself to his needs and desires. So, too, would the mortal plane beneath.
Which made what she saw several hours later all the more strange. Off in the distance, she saw a boundary. Or if not a boundary, then a terrain type she'd never seen before. Turning Cloudstrike toward the line on the horizon, she felt a frisson of excitement. Was this a newly claimed Realm, in the midst of the Unknown Realms? All the pantheons she'd ever heard about were well-established; this was definitely something new.
New, it certainly was. Also, bizarre. As they neared the border, she slowed her pace, to give any guards the chance to challenge them, but none appeared. Even stranger than that was the terrain within the new Realm. It seemed to be angular and crystalline. In some places, it even seemed to be alive and pulsating with odd lights. Strange swirls looked deeper than they really should, indicating that it extended elsewhere in a way that would cause a normal mortal physicist to give up and get very drunk.
Looking around with interest, Janesha guided Cloudstrike over the border into the new Realm. She didn't feel like landing on the odd terrain, and she got the impression that Cloudstrike had similar reservations. They wouldn't venture too far into it, she decided. If they met the new inhabitants, she would greet them in the name of Mystal, then politely leave without touching foot to ground.
Still, that didn't mean some of the larger crystal formations weren't interesting. Reacting to her slightest touch, Cloudstrike banked in a graceful turn then swooped down to glide alongside one specimen that had to be forty feet tall. Deep within it, rainbow lightning arced back and forth in a fascinating pattern.
There was another crystalline formation, almost as tall as the first, with a narrow gap in between. Janesha urged Cloudstrike onward, eager to see what this crystal would display in its depths.
From between the two monoliths, a dark form lunged with a deep-throated roar. Cloudstrike reared, screaming in fear and pain as razor claws lashed across her flank. Caught unawares, with a stinging pain in her left leg, Janesha was thrown from the saddle, flailing in midair.
What's that? Her mind kicked into high gear, calling on her celestial abilities. While she was internalising like this, the physical world was effectively on hold while she mustered her resources to analyse the threat. Talot. Has to be a feral one. Talot were a monstrous beast found here and there in the Realms. In Mystal, they were carefully husbanded for hunts, whereas Asgard considered them dangerous beasts that destroyed everything before them. Bilge-something or other. Doesn't matter now. Janesha hadn't known there were wild ones out there. This one must have found the new Realm and decided to take up residence there.
She was falling. Cloudstrike, blood running down her flank from the Talot's ambush strike, was climbing for altitude. There wasn't time to mend the gashes in her leg before she hit the ground, and from the way she was falling she would hit hard. The Talot wasn't in her line of sight, which meant she couldn't lock it down before it attacked her again. And if the fall knocked her out, it could kill her at its leisure. There was only one real viable option. Cloudstrike, I hope you can find me before it does.
She restarted time and pushed herself through into the mortal plane. This is gonna suck.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
With a grimace at the squeal of metal on metal—one more thing to fix with this damn car—Danny slowed the vehicle to a halt, then set the parking brake. Picking up the new digital camera from the front seat, he climbed out of the car and shut the door.
He hated leaving Taylor alone like this, but the new proposal had a fast-approaching deadline, and she spent most of her time sleeping now anyway. His blood boiled all over again as he recalled the condition she'd been in when she came out of the locker. They'd cleaned her up in the hospital, but she still looked fragile, as if she'd break like glass at a touch. And of course he couldn't sue the damn school. They'd unbent just far enough to pay Taylor's medical bills, under the agreement that he wouldn't hold them criminally liable for what had happened to her under their care. But if he could convince the Mayor's office to release enough funds to clean up the mess that was once Lord's Port and was now the Boat Graveyard, the Dockworkers would be a going concern once more. That would give him the personal funds to sue the school into the bedrock with a civil case as opposed to criminal.
The idea, of course, was to take photos that would convince hard-nosed bureaucrats to loosen their grip on money that they'd already decided to disburse elsewhere. Being somewhat of a hard-nosed bureaucrat himself—by occupation, not by choice—Danny figured he had maybe a thirty percent chance of making his case. But it was for Taylor, so he was determined to give it the old college try.
Just as he raised the camera, trying to get the old rusting cranes in the shot with the nearest half-sunken ship, he became aware of a new sound. It was coming from up in the air, and he swivelled to look. His eyes widened, and he almost instinctively took a picture of the screaming form that plummeted toward the ground, surrounded by an odd glow.
The impact knocked him off his feet; an echoing BOOOM rolled across the oil-polluted water. Slowly, he climbed to his feet, surprised to find himself still holding his camera. About fifty feet away, the cracked and dirty concrete slabs had been shattered into a crater ten feet deep. Head still ringing from the noise, he clambered up the low berm of debris that had been thrown up. Lying in the middle of the crater, wearing a black form-fitting costume and a cape of the same colour, was a teenage girl with dusky skin and shoulder-length black hair. She appeared to be unconscious, which didn't surprise him. She also seemed to be alive, which did.
"Well, crap," he said out loud. "What do I do now?"
End of Part One